Prime Minister David Cameron said Saturday he was sticking to an end-2014 deadline for withdrawing British combat troops from Afghanistan despite French proposals to speed up NATO's handover of security to Afghan forces.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday French troops would leave Afghanistan at the end of 2013 and Paris would propose to NATO that all foreign combat operations in Afghanistan should be handed over next year, a year earlier than the alliance plans.
Cameron cautioned other NATO members that the rate of withdrawal of foreign troops must depend on Afghan security forces being ready to take charge of security.
We ... want to have a long-term relationship with Afghanistan, long after our combat troops come home, and that will happen at the end of 2014, Cameron said during talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the prime minister's country residence Chequers outside London.
Paris has 3,600 troops in Afghanistan as part of the 130,000-strong NATO-led force, while Britain has some 9,500.
Obviously, between now and 2014 there will be opportunities for different countries to reduce their troop numbers. Britain has reduced our troop numbers over the last year, Cameron said.
He said he did not want to see troops numbers falling off a cliff edge in 2014 with all remaining troops leaving at once.
But clearly, between now and 2014, the rate at which we can reduce our troops will depend on the transition to Afghan control in the different parts of Afghanistan and that should be the same for all of the members of NATO who are all contributing and helping to a strong, stable and peaceful Afghanistan, which is in all our interests, Cameron said.
His words appeared to reflect concern expressed by some commentators that there could be a rush for the exits by Western forces from Afghanistan as their voters grow disillusioned at the cost in lives and money of the decade-long Afghan campaign.
Karzai and Cameron signed a partnership agreement setting out how their countries will work together after British combat troops leave Afghanistan.
Karzai had been due to visit Britain last month, immediately after the Bonn conference on the future of Afghanistan, but cancelled the trip to return home after scores of people were killed in a wave of sectarian bomb attacks.
On the eve of Karzai's visit, Britain's Ministry of Defense announced that a British soldier had been shot dead while on foot patrol in Helmand province Friday, bringing to 397 the number of Britons killed in Afghanistan since October 2001.
Cameron, who visited British troops in Afghanistan last month, plans to leave some British troops behind to train their Afghan counterparts after they end combat operations.
Cameron has committed Britain to pulling out 500 soldiers this year but has not yet set out a timetable for further withdrawals.
(Additional reporting by Tim Castle; Editing by Janet Lawrence)